Although anxiety and panic attacks may feel very similar, they come with their own sets of causes and features.
It’s often difficult for people to determine whether they’re experiencing an anxiety attack or a panic attack because they both have very similar physical, and psychological symptoms.
So what’s the difference between an anxiety attack and a panic attack?
We’re going to break each one down individually, by noting some of the most common symptoms and causes of both an anxiety, and a panic attack.
Some people use panic attacks and anxiety attacks interchangeably, but they’re actually two different conditions.
Anxiety attacks are typically linked to specific triggers or stressors, that you may or not be able to pinpoint.
Typically, anxiety attacks are related to the build-up of certain thoughts, excessive worry, and emotions, related to a particular stressor.
When you experience an anxiety attack it’s usually caused by heightened anxiety that builds over time, due to excessive worry.
An anxiety attack is generally caused by the escalating intensity of worry, in response to a real or perceived internal or external stressor, says Sharon D. Thomas.
If you’ve ever experienced an anxiety attack before, then you might be able to look back on that event and pinpoint something specific (a stressor) that might’ve triggered it.
There’s always going to be some sort of stressor or build-up from a stressor, that triggers an anxiety attack.
Anxiety attacks don’t just happen out of the blue (like a panic attack), rather, something usually triggers it.
For instance, maybe you’ve been struggling financially when all of a sudden you lose your job.
The build-up stress and anxiety might escalate once you lost your job, causing you to have an anxiety attack.
If you experience two or more anxiety attacks in a month, you might have a condition called an anxiety disorder.
Some examples of different types of anxiety disorders include:
- Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD) – GAD is characterized by excessive and exaggerated worry about everyday life events. People with GAD tend to worry about their health, money, family, work, or school.
- Panic Disorder – A panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is caused by reoccurring panic attacks.
- Social Anxiety Disorder – Social anxiety disorder is when you have fear and anxiety in social situations. People with social anxiety have a fear of being judged, rejected, or awkward around other people.
- Specific Phobias – People with specific phobias have unrealistic fears of objects or situations that provoke anxiety and avoidance.
- Separation Anxiety – Separation anxiety involves excessive fear or worries about being separated from someone or something that you have a strong emotional attachment to.
An anxiety disorder consists of intense, consistent, and excessive fear or worries about everyday situations.
Some common symptoms of an anxiety disorder might include, feeling nervous, trouble sleeping, overthinking, increased heart rate, or trouble concentrating (just to name a few).
Symptoms of an Anxiety Attack
The symptoms of an anxiety attack may differ from person to person, but the most common symptoms of an anxiety attack are usually the same for everyone.
Besides having intense fear and worry about a situation, some other signs and symptoms of an anxiety attack might include:
- Heart palpitations
- Tightness in the chest and throat
- Muscle tension
People often report having an anxiety attack when they feel overwhelmed about something in particular like work, money, health, school, etc.
If these issues have been on your mind or building up for a long period of time, you might experience an anxiety attack from feeling overwhelmed and out of control of the situation.
Examples of an Anxiety Attack
Some people experience anxiety attacks when they’re overstimulated or overly excited/nervous about something.
Overstimulation just means that the brain is responding to higher than normal dopamine levels, which can lead to anxiety attacks because it’s too much for the brain to process.
Trauma and being under a lot of pressure can also trigger an anxiety attack.
The stressor, or a build-up of stressors, is what can lead to multiple anxiety attacks.
How to Prevent an Anxiety Attack
Since anxiety attacks are linked to specific triggers, stress, or overwhelming thoughts, it’s helpful to narrow down the cause and start working on that first.
Practicing relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, yoga, or meditation, can really help manage anxiety and prevent frequent anxiety attacks from reoccurring.
Another option that you might want to consider is therapy, or possibly even medication, just until things settle down in your life.
If you find yourself in the middle of an anxiety attack, taking a few deep breaths and getting yourself into a calm and peaceful environment can also help you feel relaxed.
You can reduce the frequency of your anxiety attacks by routinely practicing relaxation techniques.
Some of my personal favorite relaxation techniques include:
- Deep breathing
Journaling can be a great way to not only identify your anxiety triggers, but it’s also a great method for clearing space in your mind and transfer your negative thoughts from your mind, onto paper.
Another important part of managing your mental health is to focus on your mindset.
Practicing Mindfulness, positive thinking, gratitude, and challenging your thoughts, are just a few ways that you can start working on your mindset.
Of course, getting to the root cause of your anxiety is the first step to learning how to manage and prevent anxiety attacks from occurring.
Once you’re able to identify the underlying cause of your anxiety, you have a better chance to gain control and know what you need to focus on.
Journaling is one way to help you identify what’s causing your anxiety while learning more about your triggers.
Most medical professionals will recommend journaling to their patients because it can help reduce stress and anxiety, organize your thoughts, and provides an opportunity for identifying your triggers.
Also, you can share your journal entries with your therapist to help both of you gain insight on what’s causing your anxiety, and help find the best treatment options for you.
If you’re interested in getting started with journaling, you can get a copy of one of my most popular anxiety workbooks called, the Mindset Reset Workbook.
A panic attack is a sudden and intense episode of fear that can occur unexpectedly and without cause.
Typically, there isn’t anything specific that will provoke a panic attack.
Instead, a panic attack happens without any build-up or warning, and will just sort of come of the blue — they are unprovoked and unpredictable.
Panic attacks are a lot more intense and longer-lasting than an anxiety attack, which is one way to tell the difference between the two.
Lastly, if you experience frequent panic attacks you might have what is known as a panic disorder.
Panic disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that is recurring and unexpected.
Just like an anxiety disorder, panic disorders are accompanied by intense fear or discomfort, that peak within minutes.
Panic disorder involves persistent fear of having another panic attack, which usually causes more panic attacks to occur.
Symptoms of a Panic Attack
Symptoms of panic attacks may vary from person to person, but people generally experience the same symptoms.
The most common symptoms of a panic attack are chest pain and a racing heart.
Most people have said that when they’re having a panic attack they actually feel like they’re having a heart attack because the symptoms can be severe and long-lasting.
Other symptoms might include,
- Feeling like you’re having a heart attack
- Fear of dying
- Chest pain
- Hot flashes
- Fear of loss of control or death
- Feeling Faint
The symptoms are similar to an anxiety attack, only the onset of a panic attack comes unexpectedly and sometimes without cause.
Causes of A Panic Attack
Unlike an anxiety attack, there usually won’t be anything specific that triggers a panic attack.
When people experience panic attacks it’s often related to having a number of disorders such as panic disorder, post-traumatic stress, depression, or social anxiety disorder.
A panic attack can be triggered, or happen unexpectedly.
Smoking, caffeine, and chronic stress can significantly increase the risk of having a panic attack.
One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you’ll have another one, which oftentimes leads to more panic attacks due to the fear of having another one, alone.
The good news is that anxiety and panic disorders can be managed if you get the proper treatment that you need.
If you experience frequent panic or anxiety attacks, it’s good to start by talking to your doctor while also working on some relaxation techniques.
These types of disorders are linked to high levels of stress, trauma, and worry.
Therefore, it’s important to identify the underlying cause of your stress and work on sorting those things out first.
Your environment (job, relationships, etc.) can play a big role in your stress levels.
It’s also important to rule out any medical conditions that could be causing you to experience frequent panic or anxiety attacks.
Make sure you discuss your symptoms or any changes in your mental health, with your doctor, that way you can get the proper care that you need.
Don’t be afraid or ashamed to talk about your mental health.
Getting treatment early on will only benefit you in the long run.
What has been your experience with anxiety? I would love to hear more about your journey in the comments below.
Let’s show some support for each other.
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Disclaimer: I am not a therapist or a licensed mental health professional. If you are in need of professional help I recommend Online-Therapy.com. They will match you with a therapist that you can skype, email, or talk to on the phone for an affordable monthly price. To find a mental health care provider near you call 1-800-662-HELP (4357).